Carolina Curious: Why Don't People Use Their Turn Signals?

Carolina Curious: Why Don't People Use Their Turn Signals?

3:30pm Jan 19, 2017
Credit: Arizona Department of Transportation

It's your friendly Morning Edition host here, Neal Charnoff. You may have noticed that I like to sign off the air at the end of my shift by asking people to use their turn signals. It’s a request that has apparently resonated with some listeners.

That includes Mary Good, who posed this query:

“My question is, why DON’T people use their turn signal in North Carolina?"

Ha! So it isn’t just me! Someone else has noticed that many North Carolinians consider the use of blinkers to be strictly optional. So I decided to get to the bottom of this for our latest edition of Carolina Curious.

Curious question-asker Mary Good. Neal Charnoff/WFDD

I invited Mary Good to go on a road trip around Winston-Salem so we could document and tally blinker offenses.

Our extremely unscientific survey confirmed our estimate that about two out of three drivers fail to use their signals. Mary says she sees it all the time.

"Well, when I first moved here I was talking to some friends, and they were saying, 'Oh, you know, drivers are terrible here, they never use their turn signals.' It’s the worst place for driving."

But to find out whether North Carolina is actually that much worse than other states proved difficult. One 2013 survey ranked the state 20th in failure to obey traffic laws in general. But the statistics drilling down to the statewide blinker infractions just don’t exist.

That said, I learned that blinker abuse is a very common issue nationwide.

According to a 2012 report by the Society of Automotive Engineers, one in four drivers fails to use a blinker to make a turn.

And here’s a fun fact: a citation for not using your blinker could make the difference between a covered insurance claim and a denied claim. Officer A.D. Reed with the Greensboro Police Department says, “It’s required by law. It’s not a ‘this is a common courtesy’ thing. It is an actual law.”

Greensboro Police Department Officer A.D. Reed. Neal Charnoff/WFDD

He says many traffic delays are due to people not using their blinkers, causing others to lock up their brakes and creating a ripple slowdown. And that 2012 survey I mentioned shows that improper turn signal use causes 2 million car accidents a year.

“I can tell you [the] numerous times... I’ve stopped [people] for failure to use their turn signal, while changing lanes or while turning, and I’ve stopped them and they’ve been impaired, they’ve been wanted, they’ve had a revoked driver’s license – a plethora of things that have come from that," Reed says.

One conclusion that we shouldn’t have to spell out: neglecting to use your turn signal is unlawful and dangerous. So why don't people use them?

Randy Wiles runs the Wiles Driving School in Winston-Salem. He assures me that driving instructors emphasize to their students that the use of turn signals is required by law. But he says young beginning drivers are nervous and often forget. 

Fair enough. But what about more experienced drivers? Tom Vanderbilt is a journalist and author of the book “Traffic: Why We Drive The Way We Do.” He thinks there are a couple of things going on. For example, he says people are increasingly distracted behind the wheel, especially if they're holding a cell phone.

This is the look I make when someone doesn't use their turn signal. Eddie Garcia/WFDD

“They may also be sort of mentally distracted on a phone call or something, giving them less of that attentional energy left to do something, which can sometimes seem pretty mundane, signaling for a right turn, right? So I think that’s reason number one.”

Vanderbilt says a second reason is that people are just, frankly, becoming more narcissistic.

"This is only amplified with social media and those same devices I’m talking about, so in some ways there might be an idea there that the driver just doesn’t think they need to tell the world what they’re going to do, because they’re just making it up as they go along, or they’re the most important person out there.”

Okay. So what can we as a society do about what we might call “Blinker Madness?”

Let’s go back to our discussion with the person who posed our Carolina Curious question, Mary Good. We agreed on what we shouldn’t do.

And this is the face I make when someone does use their blinker. Eddie Garcia/WFDD

I told Mary that sometimes I'm tempted to yell out my window at the person not using their blinkers, but who knows what that invites into my life?!

"You have to be careful about what kinds of other hand signals you might make to drivers that aren’t using their turn signals," Mary laughs. "But maybe in driver’s training or at the driver’s license office, they could remind people to use their turn signals."

I asked Mary if it bugs her that I remind people about this every day.

"Actually, no, almost every day when I hear it I sort of chuckle to myself. And it’s usually the case that I’ve seen someone not using their turn signal right around the time that I hear you say that.”

Well, that’s all the encouragement I need to continue my blinker crusade. 

I only ask that you consider this. When I remind people to use their turn signals, it’s more than just a passive-aggressive attempt to air a pet peeve in a public forum. I like to think that it's my own secular invitation for you to be kind. Think of others. Be aware of those who are traveling this road beside you. 

Let’s all do our part to make North Carolina’s highways safer and friendlier.


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